By Barbara Stillwater
This September, I had the good fortune to see Jackie Chan while visiting the set (actually, it was one of many sets, with filming also to take place in India and China’s Xinjiang region) of his upcoming action movie, Kung Fu Yoga, which is set to be released next year. As an American expat living in China, this was a unique opportunity and I was thrilled!
Shooting took place in the penthouse of a high-end hotel in one of China’s major cities. The filming location needed to be kept a secret, so I was asked by the person who had invited me, an insider in the Chinese entertainment industry, not to disclose the exact location of the shooting.
The film set was well hidden behind the facade of a wellness center. At the entrance, there was a reception desk staffed with nurses. I asked my friend whether the nurses were fake or real (my logic was that they were there to deflect attention from what was going on in the rooms behind them). I was told the nurses were actually real — on standby in case someone got injured on the set. I was given an ID card similar to the ones Chan’s staff were wearing, and was permitted to set foot on the set.
The penthouse was a duplex, and on the first floor there was living room furniture, Tang Dynasty-style woodcuts and books in shelves. There was catering on a dining room table for the staff in the kitchen area. The general atmosphere was like that of a casual Friday night party in a private home.
Upstairs were props used in different movies, e.g. a wooden Buddha and the scroll painting from Chan’s 2005 movie The Myth, a film that combines martial arts, adventure, fantasy and romance. The scroll painting features The Myth‘s Korean princess Ok-Soo who generally cuts an unhappy figure in the movie and only smiles for the person painting her portrait when she catches sight of the Qin-Dynasty Chinese general Meng Yi (played by Chan), whom she loves. Also, there were framed photos of Chan in different movies on a shelf. Chan’s two bicycles were strapped to the banisters of the stairs connecting the two stories of the duplex.
The shooting took place downstairs. There was equipment everywhere, film cameras, a big microphone, monitors for the A and B cameras, dollies, straps and hoists used for stunts, etc. Dozens of people were present, cameramen, makeup artists/assistants and 替身 (body doubles), who were either lounging or hovering about the set like butterflies. There was a Bollywood star on the set as well who cut a queenly figure. She spoke British English and was wearing a white bathrobe. Yet there was no sign of Chan when I first arrived.
I was very careful not to get in anyone’s way or trip over the wires; the only faux pas I committed was upsetting some books when I first entered. What struck me was that you had to stand a lot, keep quiet during filming, and there was absolutely no photo-taking on the set, with signs saying it was not permitted.
Chan’s staff slept very little, I heard, but I suppose the same could be said of those working in the film industry in general as shooting a movie is an exhausting endeavor. It seemed the crew were only filming tiny segments and made slow progress, at least on the day I visited the set.
The first time I laid eyes on Chan, he made an imposing appearance, sweeping in right past me around lunch time in a white jogging outfit and black sunglasses. What surprised me was that he was not larger than life, but looked exactly as he did in his movies (I imagined stars to appear different in real life than on the screen, stripped of makeup and costume).
The director of Kung Fu Yoga is Stanley Tong (who also directed The Myth), and I had the pleasure of shaking his hand when I first arrived. Tong and Chan spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese on the set, casually switching between the two. Numerous times, I would hear the director and vice director shout “rolling,” “action” and “ka” (卡, Chinese for “cut”). One of the doubles had to test the wooden dummy on which Chan would perform his stunts, appearing like an acrobat in a circus.
Then it was Chan’s turn. I stood only several meters away from Chan as he did his takes and was amazed at what he was still physically capable of at the age of sixty plus: Chan repeatedly punched the dummy, upon which his assistants had applied powder, and did handstands as well. Chan is still known for doing his own stunts in movies.
The first scene involved Chan entering with a small carton of milk in his hand, looking around mischievously and then proceeding to the dummy. After he was done with his very short kung fu sessions, an assistant came to hand him a towel with a “Jackie Chan” logo on it to wipe away perspiration (Chan has his very own clothing line with the same logo featured on T-shirts). Also, another assistant occasionally handed him a brush or applied a tiny bit of makeup on his cheek using a cotton swab.
What struck me was the fawning attitude of some of his assistants, only natural as he was first, their boss, and second, a big shot, if not a legend, in the entertainment industry. Chan seemed totally focused on his work; he appeared very serious for someone who could cut the clownish Houdini on screen, always narrowly escaping trouble due to his bag of kung fu tricks and rubber-like body. He truly is a contemporary trickster hero!
After a long hiatus on Facebook, I posted on September 7:
“Long time no post; still alive and kicking! I am having a good time in China; was invited to visit the set of Jackie Chan’s upcoming movie Kung Fu Yoga yesterday. Spent several hours watching Jackie Chan punch and do handstands, and saw Stanley Tong busy at work as well. Alas, no photo-taking allowed on the set.”
A Chinese American friend of mine in the Washington D.C. area commented, “Super cool! I hope he is not playing the clown in this one.” I replied, “We’ll see. I was impressed by his super serious work attitude, though. Didn’t smile once the cameras weren’t rolling.”
A Chinese co-worker of mine here in Beijing asked whether Chan looks in real life like he does in the movies. I said yes, and she replied that usually, people look heavier on TV. When she asked me whether he is as famous in the West as he is in China, I again said yes, and added that he is mainly known for kung fu in the United States. In China, Chan is a big star on many fronts, and in Beijing, Chan beams back at you from many ads, e.g. for the camera brand Canon. I even discovered a Wechat sticker featuring Chan giving a thumbs-up.
It was my impression that Chan’s assistants are a hard-working lot and lead a nomadic existence, sometimes going for long periods of time without seeing their families. Most of their time appears to be spent on their feet or on the road, roaming around the parallel universe of the movie world.
Yet Chan rewards those who work for him for their endeavors. He is good to his staff, commemorates their birthdays, poses for photos with them and gives them copies of his biography, which he autographs individually. I heard he hand-feeds his assistants grapes as well…
Maybe I’ll have the good fortune of catching a glimpse of that another time.